Sasha Sokolov is a--many believe, the --leading voice of Russian prose today. In what has amounted to a passing of the lyre, Nabokov called Sokolov's first novel, "A School for Fools," an "enchanting, tragic and touching book." One wonders, however, whether Nabokov (who once dismissed Pasternak's "Zhivago" as the "adventures of a sentimental doctor") would have been as charitable to the threateningly consummate "Astrophobia."
The widely translated "School for Fools" is the definitive classic of Soviet "youth prose," narrated (with the possible help of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury") by the "we" of a schizophrenic adolescent. Sokolov's second novel, "Between Dog and Wolf," a surrealist variation on "village prose," may prove as untranslatable as "Finnegan's Wake." "Astrophobia," his third and latest, is probably his "Petersburg" (the 1915 novel by the James Joyce of Russian modernism, Andrei Bely).
"Astrophobia" also is a hilariously shocking book. Tongue in cheek, Sokolov reinvents all recent and not-so-recent Russian history. He writes against the background of the Soviet literary antipodes and revels in playing the official pole against the dissident. For example, since Solzhenitsyn's "First Circle," many have tried their hand at portraying Stalin.
Sokolov presents us with a likable Uncle Joseph who dies in a prank played by the children of the Kremlin elite, among them the narrator. They hide his dachshund, "the faithful Russland," in his wardrobe and scramble up the stove. "The unsuspecting Joseph . . . shuffled to the wardrobe. . . . The Baskerville hound leaped out and onto his liberator's chest. 'It's an ambush!'. . ." The Generalissimo's aorta burst. "A comet, flashing across the window like a murky eye, underscored the fatality of the event." The children, "feeling . . . guilt without blame" for "the crime of the century," were severely punished--"with exile and the camps: . . . the Artek in the Crimea, . . . the spa at Piatigorsk from (Lermontov's) 'A Hero of Our Time' "
All this, of course, is sheer blasphemy against the pieties of de-Stalinization: Uncle Joseph parades as liberator and victim, and the exiles go to elitist resorts and to scout, not concentration, camps. Yet the madcap subversion of dissident discourse is subtly reconciled with one of its mainstays: Stalin dies of paranoid fear.
The episode is fashioned out of purely literary props. Lermontov and Conan Doyle are only two of the many intertextual strings strummed by the narrator. The ominous comet and the stove (in the famous Kutuzov hut) come from "War and Peace," while "Guilt Without Blame" is the title of a classic Russian melodrama, aptly coupled here with the tabloid "crime of the century."
The "faithful Russland" is borrowed--and brazenly demoted to dachshund--from a dissident tale about a ruthless German shepherd, symbol of the Gulag era. (The dog's name has been skillfully altered by the translator, who also has thrown in the Baskerville connection to compensate for the Russian allusions. Michael Henry Heim, the translator of Chekhov, Kundera and Aksyonov, has created an eminently readable English counterpart of the formidable original.)
If the Baskerville dachshund is a queer bird, so is everything else in these pseudo-memoirs from the 21st Century, i.e. literally from beyond history. In a true post-modernist spirit, "Astrophobia" is a novel about the retrospective compatibility of all of history's vagaries and verbalizations.
The cumulative effect of "Astrophobia" resembles Komar and Melamid's painting, "Comrade Stalin and the Muses," in which the socialist-realist Stalin, generalissimo uniform and all, is waited upon by classicist muses in fluttering gowns. But Sokolov goes them one better. His narrator Palisander--a Kremlin orphan, Stalin's involuntary and Brezhnev's unsuccessful assassin, seducer of Madame Brezhnev, prolific literary genius, and final ruler of Russia, His Eternity--combines Stalin and the muses in one person.
This pivotal fusion is rooted in the master myth of Russian literature: the opposition/equation of poet and czar (a Romantic notion perpetuated in Russia by literature's role as the shadow government). On the solemn side, it has resulted in the celebrated martyrology of Russian writers; on the carnivalesque, in Gogol's and Dostoevsky's menagerie of obsessive graphomaniacs, mad or feather-brained impostors, grand as well as petty inquisitors, and other verbal would-be saviors of Russia.
Sokolov's treatment of this myth owes its success to a cross-breeding with another literary species: the decadents, sex maniacs and monsters of Romantic and Modernist art. The identity of Palisander remains mysteriously protean to the end. He is child and adult, male and female, beauty and beast. Indeed, in previous incarnations he was a horse (Catherine the Great's lover) and a tree (palisander, i.e. rosewood). In this life, he is an indefatigable lover of decrepit old ladies--an inverted Humbert Humbert of "Lolita" fame. Like a reptilian Dracula, Palisander lives in a moveable tub, whence he reigns over Russia's lands and letters.
Palisander's polymorphism fleshes out what otherwise would have remained a purely cerebral mock-remythologizing of the Stalinist past. The ambiguous ideological cross between the Kremlin and its critics also gives rise to a corresponding stylistic hybrid: a stunning patchwork of official idioms (revolutionary, military, imperial) and a panoply of alien, "un-Soviet" discourses (those of the czarist ancien regime, of the aesthetic, somewhat precious revival of the 1900s, of the dissident movement and emigration, of the libertarian and libertine, porno-decadent West, etc.), all de- and re-flated at the same time in an exuberant celebration of writing as such.
But the narrator's verbal prowess is more than matched by his picaresque exploits. The plot strings together a series of Oedipal relationships with major political families (especially elaborate are the triangles with the Brezhnevs and the czar's descendants--Anastasia and her husband--in their European castle).
The ensuing conflicts take Palisander to prison (a famous monastery turned Kremlin massage parlor), to exile (where he fails to marry into the Romanov dynasty but succeeds in helping Samuel Beckett phrase the arrival of Godot and in winning two Nobel Prizes--one for literature and one for his hermaphrodite- rights crusade), and, finally, like a Ulysses or a Lenin, back to Russia (with a trainload of the remains of Russian emigres, in a motif rife with cultural connotations).
The Russo-American bond, as symbolized by Nabokov's dual literary citizenship, reflects the basic complementarity of the two cultures, one purveying, the other thriving on immigrants. Like a constellation of other literati, Sokolov followed his text to the West ("A School for Fools" was published by Ardis in 1976). For more than a decade, he earned his living (at one time as a ski instructor, not unlike Nabokov, who in leaner years taught tennis) and wrote in Canada and the United States.
When "Astrophobia" first came out in 1985, there was no hope of a Soviet publication. But under glasnost, Sokolov's two previous books now have appeared in Russia and, in a twist rare in recent history but actually forecast in "Astrophobia," the exiled writer himself has tentatively moved back to Moscow.
Yet despite the acclaim he receives in the Soviet media, "Astrophobia" remains unpublished. It is not so much a matter of censorship (both anti-Communism and sex being perfectly welcome now) as of chronological order: Before post-something you must have the thing itself. To paraphrase Lenin about capitalism, Russia suffers not from modernism but from the insufficient development thereof. Like many other "isms" in Russia, Sokolov's post-modernism probably will have to ring twice.
But here, where history is over, "Astrophobia" is available, in an excellent translation, and we have world enough and time to enjoy it.